three businesswomen at a table
June 7, 2017

Maternity leave catch-22: People see women as bad workers or bad moms

Women who take time off to care for their newborn children are believed to be less committed and less competent at work, while those who continued performing their job-related duties after the birth of their kids are considered to be less caring parents, according to a new study.

“This is a no-win situation for women,” study author Dr. Thekla Morgenroth, a psychologist at the University of Exeter in the UK, explained in a statement. “Our results show that perceptions of competence, whether in the work or family domain, were never boosted – but only impaired – by the maternity leave decision. Both decisions had negative consequences.”

Writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Dr. Morgenroth and her colleagues explained that they presented various scenarios regarding mothers and maternity leave to group of 296 employed people, as well as a control situation where the decision was not relevant.

Women who chose to take maternity leave received more negative evaluations at work, while those who opted against taking time off to care for a newborn were evaluated more negatively in the family domain, the researchers wrote. The findings suggest that when it comes to the issue of maternity leave, it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation for women.

“These effects occurred regardless of the respondent's gender, age, parental status or nationality – which suggests these attitudes are universal and pervasive in our culture,” said Dr. Morgenroth, who co-authored the study along with New York University professor Madeline Heilman.

The solution: provide time off for fathers too, say authors

According to the university, 137 women and 157 men were presented with the information about the fictional woman. The majority of the participants were either from the US or UK, and each of them were currently employed, with 70 percent working full-time basis. Less than one-third were parents themselves, and the average age of the participants was 33.32 years.

Each participant was given a transcript of a conversation between Jennifer, a fictional employee, and a human relations professional. During the conversation, Jennifer either decided to take time off following the birth of her child or to opt out of maternity leave, although a third option failed to discuss the matter at all – this served as the control.

After reading the transcript, the participant was asked to rate the employee on a scale of 1 to 7 on various factors, including commitment to work, commitment to family, job competence, parental competence, and desirability as a potential partner. What they discovered that, whatever decision the woman made, the perception  of here would be negative in one realm or another.

As Dr. Morgenroth explained to Fatherly, the results reveal the Catch-22 surrounding the issue of maternity leave: women who take time off to raise their newborn “will be judged badly in the work domain,” she said, while those who decide against taking it “are seen as a bad parents.”

“I strongly believe that paid maternity leave is helping mothers and I would not want people to interpret our findings as a reason not to offer maternity leave. However, offering paid leave for mothers and fathers would be even better,” she continued. “In that case, parents could share the responsibilities – and the blame that is likely to come with it.”

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